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Friday, April 5, 2019

"What kind of music do you write?"

I'm often asked, "What kind of music do you write?"

My response to this tricky question has not become any easier over the years...

After an uncomfortably long silence, I scratch my head, and only then do I begin the deliberate and arduous task of searching for the most appropriate words to reply with. Multiple versions of plausible verbal explanations bombard my weary brain with a chorus of anxious narrators who aggressively compete in vain for the attention of my wandering consciousness.

I say to myself silently, "Ah, THIS question again! How am I to respond?"

Now, put on the spot for a cogent answer, I carefully assess the context and nature of the innocent inquiry about my music and try to find a quick, honest, and suitable response. I dig deep for potential metaphors, search far-and-wide for appropriate comparisons, and hunt the surface of what I know of the humongous musical lexicon for a musical genre that closely relates to what I actually write (or attempt to write). I almost always fail in this process. As hard as I try, I cannot adaquately answer this simple question.

It's not that I don't know what kind of music I write, it's that I can't easily explain what it is or what it sounds like in the abstract to a stranger merely using words. Language falls short.

After I explain that I can't easily describe or label what kind of music I compose, the next question usually is: "Why?"

Here's why...

The fundamental reason why I choose to compose music rather that express myself some other way is that music is inherently an abstract medium. Music, broadly speaking, is about sound manipulated in time. It is also presented culturally as a shared aesthetic and a common emotional experience that is communicated between and within individuals and groups - often across time and place.

That's a broad high-level definition of music, but it doesn't tell you much at all about the individual signatures of its creators. Everyone thinks, speaks, and writes differently. Every voice is unique. Yes, we have our unique influences, hiccups, and biases, but almost by definition the artist as creator marches by a different drummer than everyone else - including other creators. The artist is out in left field trying something different than the pack, sometimes succeeding in what they do and sometimes not. The artist is an outlier. It goes back to the old and useful cliché about the artist as an individualist, a rebel, and nonconformist. What the artist does typically will not fit into neat and orderly categories. It's much more nuanced than that.

Clearly, a lot of composers will think and work differently than I do. But it's very common to read about new works that derive their genesis or inspiration from various non-musical influences. Literature, poetry, painting, film, nature, mathematical models, physics, and even video games have become oft-publicized examples of musical creation and inspiration. For example, you can see this in program notes and marketing brochures. I don't disagree with anyone's inspiration or motives. I just speak for myself. One should take inspiration from wherever they can find it. It's also important to consider that, as a listener, I find it generally irrelevant that the new piece I'm listening to found this or that inspiration while the composer was watching a sunset on a beach (perhaps while they were in residence at an artist's retreat in Europe, or somewhere else equally idyllic). If what the composer sets out to express comes through and is heard by the attentive listener, it really does not need to be articulated or explained by other means. The mood expressed in the music is not necessarily the mood the composer felt when the work was composed. These are separate and independent events in time.

For me, music is a self-contained, self-sufficient ecosystem. While I seek and enjoy stimulating ideas (artistic and otherwise) that exist in other realms, organized sound is my simple and happy sandbox. The musical environment is a unique medium that speaks for itself. New works sink or swim according to the rules we impose on the musical sounds we specify and the larger design we create using it.

My chosen sound world is intentionally abstract. I avoid external associations like the plague. I do not consciously reference text, images, or attempt to replicate processes in the physical world of any kind. Neither do I strive to create socially conscious or political music (although I do my part as a citizen in society). I do not subscribe to any of the countless "isms" floating around in the vast tribal-network of compositional styles and methods. I am not a card-carrying serialist, or spectralist. Nor do I associate myself as a member of the new-romanticism or post-modernist movements. My music is too busy to be labeled minimalist and too simple to fall within the field of new-complexity. The list of what I don't associate with is too large to enumerate.

I title my works in such a way as to minimize the possibility that a listener might read into the music something that it was never intended to represent in the first place. A title such as, "Three Pieces for Violin and Piano" in my view liberates the listener and frees them up to process ideas that actually may be embodied in the essence of the music - ideas that can be experienced directly and with a minimum of unnecessary distraction. It's about as neutral as you can get.

Avoiding the extra baggage of external association may be seen by some as an extremely ascetic approach. It's clearly a marketing issue from the perspective of music promoters. How do you sell "Composition IV" to a trend-seeking audience? But to preload expectations and unduly influence the psychological outcome of a perceptual experience I believe would be counterproductive to the primary intention of creating a truly unique musical expression. It could potentially distort and rob music of its ability to surprise. Music is powerful enough, and when done well, does not require a promoter's shoulders to stand on.

The clearest and most direct way to describe what kind of music I write is to share it. I think my work, if heard, will speak for itself.

And, although I shun most (if not all) external associations in my music (other composers are free to do as they wish), I do not see myself as living on an island. My music is informed by everything I've heard over the course of a lifetime. I've studied - and in some cases assimilated - elements of jazz, bebop, North Indian classical music, Javanese Gamelan, avant-garde, electronic, and world music from various regions. I once played in a rock band. I've also studied art-music of the European classical tradition and music of it's earlier incantations. All of this mixes together into a grand stew. Hopefully the resulting soup is something new and original, not just a mishmash of unrelated styles.

As strange as it seems, it is easier to say what my music is not. It is not, for example, Rock-influenced or derived from that of my teachers, friends, colleagues, predecessors, or mentors. In particular, I do not wish to latch onto labels or categories of any kind - even if they stem from a similar aesthetic-ballpark compared to what I do. For example, in this context, "Classical" means absolutely nothing.

I'm highly suspect of the magnetic draw of artistic schools and trends. They are too convenient, too conforming, and ultimately have a negative impact on the reception of one's work since it tends to impose a colored filter on the expected outcome. The field of music criticism creates labels and by doing so herds an audience into various defined containers.

The kind of music I write can and will change from piece to piece. Not only will I grow, learn, transform, and evolve over time, but I will likely express different ideas with each work that I create along the way. So, in this sense, each piece is intended to be unique. Often, the interior sound world of some works of music stand-off by themselves. These works reveal themselves as uncharacteristic compared to the others.

"What kind of music do you write?" is on the surface a very simple question. But, at least for me, I find the answer quite difficult to enumerate.

Perhaps the reason why I choose to create via organized sound comes down to the fact that there is no other way to express the particular thoughts I muse about using a medium other than the construction of thought via the formation of music.


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